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Rugby Union: Gatland galvanises Ireland

France 18 Ireland 16

IN the end, the calculators proved surplus to requirements. France, though, needed a hooker in their grand stade on Saturday. Seven minutes from the sharp point of a painfully humiliating defeat, Raphael Ibanez got his side off the hook.

Long before the French captain made the decisive final breakthrough for his country, from a desperate rolling maul the record books had been set aside. The script with 50 points, 60 or more even, writ large across it failed to materialise. France were lucky to get 18, and mightily grateful too.

Instead of the French XV, one of the men in green made it into pages of posterity. When Denis Hickie galloped 50 yards to cross the home line in the 35th minute he ended a wait stretching back to the days when he was a four-year-old colt. Not since 1980, and Freddie McLennan's touchdown in Parc des Princes, had an Irishman scored a try against France in Paris.

Having marked his international debut season with tries at the Arms Park and Murrayfield last year, Hickie stands to complete a Five Nations full monty on foreign fields when Ireland visit Twickenham next month. But on Saturday night in Paris he had the demeanour of a man standing on the brink of despair.

"I feel devastated," he said. "Everyone in the dressing-room is. We're gutted. France were there for the taking and we didn't do it."

The margin of failure was the closest Ireland had finished to France since the 15-15 draw at Lansdowne Road 13 years ago. That, however, was as much a tantalising torment as a consolation to Hickie and his fellow giants. They could, and should, have been celebrating Ireland's first success in Paris for 26 years with a two-fingered salute to those of us who confidently predicted the worst.

Those premature foregone conclusions failed to take full account of Warren Gatland's influence. To someone who has pulled on the All Black jersey 17 times, there are no such things as lost causes and exercises in damage limitation. It was not mere bluff when Sean Fitzpatrick's old understudy arrived in Paris telling anyone who would care to listen: "The French players are only human. If you put pressure on them they will make mistakes."

Thus is proved. With eight minutes gone, Thomas Castaignede failed to find touch and when Conor O'Shea returned the ball to the French 22 Philippe Carbonneau threw it wildly forward in attempting to release Christope Lamaison on a counter-attack.

France, as Ibanez conceded, were guilty of trying to run into the record books before walking through the formal process of establishing a winning platform. "We were not afraid enough of Ireland," Jean Claude Skrela, France's head coach, lamented. He was, though, talking in the past tense.

By the time Hickie intercepted Lamaison's stray pass and raced clear from the half-way line, fear had already crept into French minds. Denied a sight of the Irish line by the wall of green shirts holding steadfastly firm, France were reduced to the ignominy of kicking for points.

They ought to have been more than 10 points behind, too, when Philippe Bernat-Salles finally breached the Irish defence on the hour. Paul Wallace had been denied a seemingly valid try midway through the first-half after Jean-Luc Sadourny was judged to have applied downward pressure over the line while scrambling to intercept a fly-hack by the Irish prop.

What luck was going was certainly not of the Emerald Isle variety. Ultimately, however, it was ill judgement rather than ill fortune that undermined them.

Nesdale's poor throw and Mick Galwey's missed catch gave France their only line-out steal of the day - and Ibanez his chance to pinch victory.

France: Tries Bernat-Salles, Ibanez; Conversion Lamaison; Penalties Lamaison 2. Ireland: Try Hickie; Conversion Elwood; Penalties Elwood 3.

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); P Bernat-Salles (Pau), C Lamaison (Brive), S Glas (Bourgoin), X Garbajosa (Toulouse); T Castaignede (Castres), P Carbonneau (Brive); C Califano (Toulouse), R Ibanez (Dax, capt), F Tournaire (Toulouse), O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux), A Pelous (Toulouse), M Lievremont (Stade Francais), T Lievremont (Perpignan), O Magne (Brive). Replacements: P Benetton (Agen) for M Lievremont, 54; C Soulette (Beziers) for Tournaire, 66; T Cleda (Pau), for Pelous, 74.

IRELAND: C O'Shea (London Irish); R Wallace (Saracens), K Maggs (Bristol), R Henderson (Wasps), D Hickie (St Mary's College); E Elwood (Galwegians), C McGuinness (St Mary's College); R Corrigan (Greystones), K Wood (Harlequins, capt), P Wallace (Saracens), P Johns (Saracens), M O'Kelly (London Irish), D Corkery (Bristol), V Costello (St Mary's College), A Ward (Ballynahinch). Replacements: R Nesdale (Newcastle),for Wood, 60; N Popplewell (Newcastle) for Corrigan, 60; M Galwey (Shannon) for Johns, 65; P Clohessy (Young Munster) for P Wallace, 65.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).